Thursday, 10 March 2011


Meanwhile, back at the Slush Pile to the Shelves course, we were looking at dialogue this week.   Everyone knows about ‘show not tell’ and the importance of using dialogue rather than long chunks of narrative. Wherever possible, yes, use dialogue in place of narrative, but remember this simple rule:


I have read a lot of manuscripts where the hero and heroine are chatting madly away about  what to have for dinner or what they’re going to do that day but the scene isn’t going anywhere and the pace and tension  inevitably sag.  Avoid banal conversations for their own sake.

Dialogue should

1) advance the plot
2) reveal character
3) substitute for narrative
4) establish tone or mood 
If it doesn’t do any of these, you can probably cut it without affecting the story.

Tips to Improve Dialogue
  • Show where your characters are and what they’re doing as they talk.  They’re not just facing each other like blocks of woods.  During their conversation, make sure the reader knows what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, and so on to bring the scene to life.  This is where your five senses come in!
  • Use action tags instead of ‘he said/she said’.  Action tags can reveal a lot about your character.  Is she fiddling with her bracelets as she’s talking? Is he running a finger around his collar?  Sometimes what a character does can tell us a lot more than what they actually say, so use their gestures to tell the reader about their character and what they’re feeling
  • Interrupt long passages of dialogue with beats or interjections from other characters.  Remember, just because it’s in quotation marks doesn’t mean you’re not telling not showing.  Don’t give your characters long speeches they would never make in real life.
  • Keep attributions to a minimum.  The reader needs to know who’s talking, but if it’s obvious,  you don’t need to add ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.
  • If you do need to make it clear, ‘said’ is usually fine.  Be very careful about working your way through the thesaurus with variations: grated, growled, muttered, barked, exclaimed, cried and so on.  It’s very easy to end up sounding like a pastiche!
  • Likewise, don’t overdo the adverbs.  If your dialogue is strong enough, you shouldn’t need to explain any more.  ‘Go to hell!’ is already angry; you don’t need to add, ‘she said angrily’.   
  • Make sure your characters are talking in a realistic way, but not so realistically that we can’t follow the conversation.  The occasional ‘um’ or ‘er’ or unfinished sentence is fine, if it tells you something about the character, but too many and you will just irritate the reader. 
  • Unless you have a particular reason for wanting a character to sound stilted, use contractions (don’t, won’t, rather than ‘do not’ or ‘will not’) and don’t forget interjections that can give dialogue a natural feel: Look, well, hey, oh, for God’s sake, and so on.

But above all, don’t forget that dialogue – all together now! – must SAY SOMETHING.  Sure, your hero and heroine can have a stilted conversation about the weather, but this will only work if they have, for instance, made mad, passionate love the night before and now are both desperately NOT talking about what happened.  Here, what they’re not saying is almost as important as what they are, but in this case you need to be very careful to balance this with what they’re feeling.

Make sure the your hero and heroine talk about the problem between them.  Think of your plot as a series of conversations which test the feelings they have for each other. 

Dialogue is also the best way to get the backstory across, but again, avoid long speeches where they explain things to each other. 

Finally, having a character hiss dialogue when there’s no "s" in it is apparently a pet hate among a lot of editors and agents.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with, e.g. ‘Keep quiet’, he hissed, but there’s no point in irritating an editor if you don’t have to, so try and find a different word if you can.

I’m off to walk around Kielder Water in Northumberland this weekend … they’re forecasting snow so I’m about to dig out my thermal vest!


  1. Ooo must keep an eye on the hiss dialogue! Or keep an eye on the dialogue period lol!

  2. Thanks for a great craft post.